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Lakers vs the Globetrotters
Minneapolis Lakers vs. Harlem Globetrotters
By Stew Thornley
Author of Basketball’s Original Dynasty: The History of the Lakers
The Minneapolis Lakers and Harlem Globetrotters were two teams on a collision course. One had been around for more than 20 years; the other, less than one year. But in the winter of 1948, they were pro basketball’s two top teams.
Their name—Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters—didn’t seem to make any sense for a team based in Chicago. But owner Abe Saperstein had several thoughts when he chose it. Saperstein was obsessed with New York (to the point that he eventually rented an office in the Empire State Building just to have a New York address). The “Harlem” part of the name not only provided a New York connection, but also indicated that this was an all-black team. “Globetrotters” denoted the world travels that Saperstein accurately envisioned for the team.
When they played their first game in Hinckley, Illinois, in January 1927, however, it was just five players plus Saperstein crammed into a car traveling from one small Midwestern city to another. In addition to managing and coaching the Globetrotters, Saperstein wore a uniform under his overcoat during games and was the team’s lone substitute. (Thus, Saperstein was the Globetrotters’ first white player, although the first white ever under contract to play for the team was Bob Karstens 15 years later.)
Within a few years, the weary Globetrotters found ways to relax during games. They perfected dazzling ball-handling routines that allowed them to take a breather while still keeping the crowd entertained.
They were to add other routines to the point that legitimate basketball has all but disappeared from today’s Globetrotter games. But in the 1930s and 1940s they were competitive basketball players first and entertainers second.
In 1939 the achieved a berth in the “World’s Professional Basketball Championship,” an invitational tournament sponsored by the Chicago Herald-American newspaper. They lost to another all-black team, the New York Rens, in the championship game, but they were back the following year, and this time they won the tournament to become the official World Champions of Professional Basketball.
In early 1948, Arch Ward, the venerable Chicago sportswriter, wrote that “the Trotters are still the best team in the world.” By this time, however, there was another cage group trying to lay stake to the top spot.
The Minneapolis Lakers had been formed only the year before after Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen purchased the Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League. The Gems were on the verge of collapse after having won only four of 44 games the previous year, so it didn’t appear that a new basketball dynasty was about to be born when Berger and Chalfen moved the team to Minneapolis.
Building from scratch, the Lakers first acquired Don “Swede” Carlson and Tony Jaros—both former stars at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis Edison High School—in a deal with the Chicago Stags of the rival Basketball Association of America. Soon after, Jim Pollard, a former All-American at Stanford University, was persuaded to sign his first professional contract after several years of playing amateur ball.
Less than a fortnight into their first season came an event that would transform the Lakers from a good team into champions. Another rival organization—the Professional Basketball League of America—was in its first year of operation. The league’s showcase team was the Chicago American Gears, who featured the game’s most dominant player, George Mikan. On November 12, 1947, however, the League of America folded.
The Lakers, by virtue of having had the league’s worst record the previous year as the Detroit Gems, were given the first pick in a dispersal draft of the defunct league’s players. They used it to select Mikan.
The six-foot-ten Mikan was an immediate sensation as he quickly eclipsed several National Basketball League scoring records. With George in the pivot, the Lakers were virtually unstoppable.
This was the setting when Saperstein and Lakers’ general manager Max Winter agreed to a game to be played at Chicago Stadium on February 19, 1948. “Little did we realize,” said Winter, “that it would turn out to be one of the most memorable basketball games of all time.”
The Lakers-Globetrotters game actually was scheduled as a preliminary to a Basketball Association of America game between the Chicago Stags and New York Knicks. But the arena record 17,823 fans who turned out for the doubleheader were not there to see the Stags and Knicks; the Globetrotters and Lakers were the main event this night.
The Lakers held a significant height advantage; they had several players taller than the Trotters’ six-three center Reece “Goose” Tatum. But the star of the Globetrotters was Marques Haynes, acknowledged as the world’s greatest ball handler. (Once, with the Globetrotters nursing a one-point lead and playing shorthanded after two of their players had fouled out, Haynes dribbled out the entire fourth quarter.) Ermer Robinson, Wilbert King, and Louis “Babe” Pressley rounded out the Globetrotters’ starting lineup.
It became apparent early that Tatum would be no match for Mikan. The Lakers jumped to an early 9-2 lead and held a 32-23 edge at the half. Mikan had pumped in 18 points while holding Tatum scoreless.
With their 103-game winning streak in jeopardy, Saperstein’s men tried some new tactics in the second half. Pressley came over to assist Tatum in defensing Mikan, and the double-team strategy worked. Playing a much more physical game, the Trotters not only held Mikan to only six points the rest of the way, they frustrated George to the point that he drew a technical foul. Meanwhile, the fast-breaking Globetrotters battled back to tie the score at 42 as the third quarter ended.
The contest remained close the rest of the way. Both of Mikan’s defenders—Tatum and Pressley—fouled out late in the fourth quarter, but the Trotters hung in. With a minute- and-a-half left, they tied the game, 59-59, and then got the ball back. It was time for Haynes to display his talents, as the Trotters’ main magician kept the ball and dribbled down the clock. With seconds remaining, he flipped the ball to Ermer Robinson, who unleased a long set shot as the final buzzer sounded.
The ball swished through the basket, but did he get the shot off in time? One timer said yes, the other said no, but the final ruling went against the Lakers, and the Globetrotters had pulled out an incredible 61-59 victory.
The Lakers went on to win both the National Basketball League title and the World’s Professional Basketball Tournament (which was in its final year). By the following season, the Lakers were members of the Basketball Association of America (having defected with three other NBL teams). They would also be given another chance at the Globetrotters, as Saperstein and Winter scheduled two meetings near the end of the 1948-49 season.
The Lakers were crippled for the first contest. Both Jim Pollard and Swede Carlson missed the game and the Globetrotters overcame a six-point halftime deficit to win, 49-45, as 20,046 jammed Chicago Stadium, breaking the record set when the two teams last met. The Trotters built a large enough lead in the fourth quarter to feel comfortable in performing some of their crowd-pleasing antics, including a fabulous dribbling routine by Haynes. But this would also be the last time the Globetrotters would ever beat the Lakers.
When they met two weeks later, before a Minneapolis Auditorium record crowd of 10,122, the Lakers were at full strength and cruised to a 68-53 win. This time is was the Lakers turn to clown, and Don Forman delighted the crowd with a dribbling act that rivalled the show put on by Haynes in the previous game.
The series between the Lakers and Globetrotters would continue over the next several years, despite changes that would affect the battles. During the summer of 1949, the National Basketball League and Basketball Association of America merged to form the National Basketball Association. Of greater significance, however, was the integration of the NBA, as the Boston Celtics drafted and signed Chuck Cooper, opening the league to athletes of all races and eliminating the monopoly the Globetrotters had on black talent. In fact, before the next season opened, the Trotters’ star center, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, had signed with the New York Knicks.
Even after the retirements of Mikan and Pollard brought an end to the Minneapolis dynasty, the Lakers had little trouble in handling the Globetrotters, who by this time were concentrating more on entertainment and less on competitive basketball.
In January of 1958, the teams met for the last time. The Lakers won-loss record was 8-24, and the team was on its way to producing the worst record in the league that year. Even so, Minneapolis defeated the Globetrotters, 111-100.
Today Saperstein is gone, and the Lakers have long departed Minneapolis for Los Angeles. They’ve taken separate paths, but, each in their own way, the Lakers and Globetrotters still command national fame and attention and have remained premier attractions in the basketball world.